If there’s one perennial discussion tied to the CFL, it’s about how the league relates to the US’s NFL. Unlike the NHL, MLB, and NBA, the countries don’t share a football league, which makes it easy to compare the two. But in the last couple of decades, the CFL and NFL have started to diverge. In other words, not all football fans care to answer which league is ‘better’ and by which metrics.
From their rules to their history, they’re simply different. Today, other divergent football leagues like the XFL and USFL have lent more authority to the CFL. The CFL has been around longer, it has a legacy of all-star players, and, despite some uncertain eras, is financially stable.
Still, twenty years back, this wasn’t the case. The CFL was trying new things in a bid for expansion. When looking at some of the biggest moments in 90s entertainment, pop culture focuses on music, film, and a reel of fantasies about what life would be like in the future. Canadian sports fans might remember the 90s slightly differently.
One of the best remembered periods was the CFL’s attempt to expand into the US. Though the plan didn’t pan out, that didn’t stop the league from producing some of the most memorable moments in Canadian football history. Looking back at the 1990s, here are some of the CFL’s biggest moments.
The Lions Trump the Stallions in 1994 Grey Cup
The early 90s was a time of hope for the CFL. Back in 1991, the Toronto Argonauts managed to nab the number one prospect for the NFL Draft: wide receiver Raghib Ismail. Though he didn’t last long in the CFL, he symbolizes the international push the CFL undertook. In 1993, it brought on its first US team, the Sacramento Gold Miners.
By 1994, the CFL had six American teams in its South Division—and the Baltimore Stallions managed to battle their way to the Grey Cup in 1994. But the BC Lions were there to stop the US from nabbing the trophy with a 26-23 win. (No need to bring up the 1995 Grey Cup.)
Doug Flutie Doesn’t Back Down
Doug Flutie couldn’t seem to find his rhythm in the NFL. From 1985-1989, he struggled for a starting position with the Chicago Bears—and his opponent, Jim McMahon, didn’t offer him any encouragement. After being dubbed ‘America’s midget’, Flutie went north to play with the CFL.
Flutie spent time with the Lions, Argonauts, and Stampeders, during which time he nabbed the CFL most-outstanding player award three times, won three Grey Cups, and brought home three Grey Cup MVP titles between 1990 and 1997.
An End to the Rough Riders
The CFL’s adventure into US expansion ended abruptly in 1996 due to ongoing financial problems. At that time, the Ottawa Rough Riders folded. Founded in 1876, the Rough Riders were one of the oldest teams in existence in North America, which made the loss rough for many. The folding also ended an era of rough riders in the CFL.
Back in 1910, the Saskatchewan Roughriders joined the CFL, which meant that fans had spent close to a century watching two teams with the same name compete. It was one of the CFL’s most unique oddities. Unfortunately, when Ottawa’s CFL team was revived in 2013, the Roughriders fought for sole rights to the name—which resulted in the current Redblacks name.
Best of the 1990s: A Failed Expansion into America
Above, we covered the CFL’s failed expansion into the US. Despite funding and interest from celebrity heroes from John Candy to Wayne Gretzky, the CFL’s venture didn’t pan out—and the link needed a big bailout from the NFL.
Not many would think back on this venture with fondness. However, it marks one of the biggest victories in the CFL: maintaining its distinction from the NFL. During the expansion period, tensions quickly arose between Canadian and US teams over rule changes, which would have needed further compromises in the future. By staying in Canada, the league is able to maintain its unique heritage.